Who Murdered Our Daughter?

A harrowing tale of three murders, inconclusive evidence, and the 18-year search for a serial killer.

By Bryan Smith | from Reader's Digest Magazine

Maria Bruno

Maria Bruno left behind four children.

A Break in  the Case
In 2002, Illinois detectives reinvestigating Tricia Pacaccio’s murder came looking for Gargiulo in California.

The detectives, including Lou Sala from the Cook County sheriff’s cold-case division, had taken over for Reed and Baldwin in 2000. The new investigators had submitted the physical evidence recovered at the Pacaccio murder scene for DNA testing using newer, more sophisticated methods. The tests had detected DNA from two people on Tricia’s nail clippings: her own and that of an unidentified person. Sala collected DNA samples from more than 20 witnesses in the case, but none matched. Only Gargiulo remained on the list.

When Small heard who they were looking for—and why—“bells and whistles went off,” he says. “We believed it had to be our guy.”

They tracked Gargiulo to an apartment listed under his girlfriend’s name. Search warrant in hand, they discovered three knives, binoculars, and a backpack containing a Halloween mask and a handgun in his van. Authorities apprehended Gargiulo when he arrived home and collected DNA samples. Gargiulo was allowed to remain free pending the outcome of the tests.

In September 2003—ten years after Tricia Pacaccio had been killed—results indicated that the foreign DNA on Tricia’s fingernails belonged to Michael Gargiulo. Tom Small, lacking any DNA evidence from the Ellerin crime scene, felt he could not charge Gargiulo. His hope was that Cook County prosecutors would help his case by doing so instead.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office said that it was impossible to determine whether the genetic material came from the tops of the nails or under them. Because of that, the office said, experts could not rule out the possibility that Gargiulo’s DNA found its way onto Tricia’s nails through casual contact—particularly since Gargiulo had visited the Pacaccio house. “I thought they [were] going to arrest him and confront him with evidence and see what he had to say,” says Small. “But it didn’t work out that way.”

The Attacks Continue
Two years after the DNA match, on the night of December 1, 2005, a killer climbed through the kitchen window of an apartment in El Monte, a working-class suburb of L.A. The young woman who lived there, an aspiring model named Maria Bruno, had been uneasy in the days leading up to that night. A “weird guy” had been watching her, she told friends.

The intruder stabbed Bruno 17 times. As with the Ellerin case, the killer appeared to have posed Bruno’s body. Mark Lillienfeld, a detective with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department discovered a blue medical bootie outside Bruno’s apartment, but he couldn’t connect it to a suspect.

Three years later, in April 2008, Michelle Murphy, a petite, 28-year-old blonde, awoke sometime after midnight to a man wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap straddling her body, stabbing her in the chest. She grabbed the blade, the steel slicing her palms. She kicked wildly at the man, her blood-slicked body making it hard for him to hold her. At some point, the man cut himself. Murphy kicked the attacker in the chest. He fell against the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, staggering out.

The DNA collected from the blood left at the scene belonged to Michael Gargiulo. He was arrested on June 6, 2008. A bag with some tools and blue medical booties were found in his car.

Soon detectives assembled other clues. A single medical bootie was found in a plastic bag in Gargiulo’s apartment—the same make and manufacturer as the one at the Bruno murder scene. A test of skin cells on the bootie matched their DNA to that of Gargiulo. With DNA linking Gargiulo to two murders and one attempted murder, Gargiulo, already in jail for the alleged attempted murder of Michelle Murphy, was charged in the Ellerin and Bruno killings.

Delayed Justice
Nightfall looms in Glenview. Tricia’s parents, sitting at the kitchen table, are grateful about the latest developments: Two new witnesses came forward to say that Gargiulo confessed to killing their daughter, and on July 7, 2011, Gargiulo was indicted for the murder of Tricia Pacaccio. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in Los Angeles County.

The Pacaccios are pleased at the thought that justice may finally be at hand for the girl whose room they keep exactly as it was almost 20 years ago. Still, they don’t seek closure.

“There is no such thing,” Rick says, his voice rising. “What was done to this family can’t be erased.”

From Chicago Magazine (July 1, 2011)

Courtesy Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Homicide Bureau

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